Discrimination

Book Excerpt: On Empathy

It is a simple matter to rank the empathy we feel for those around us.

Consider the following: How aggrieved would you be if a family member was murdered? How about a friend? An acquaintance? A stranger? A stranger overseas? A stranger 100 years ago in history? Our empathy diminishes the further we get from the individual in question.[i] The more remote they are from us individually; the less capacity we have to empathise with their predicament.

The philosopher Peter Singer theorizes an “expanding circle” of empathy for those around us.[ii] Singer suggests that when faced with a small kid drowning in a pond in front of us, we feel obliged to save that child (even if others are walking passed in willful ignorance). Yet, when faced by this same predicament of a child drowning: yet now in a foreign country beyond our perception, we react differently.

Conceptually, the geographic distance makes no difference (a child is drowning), but our action (in not giving to charity, for instance) proves that we perceive a difference between the two. Our empathy is diminished by geographic distance and a lack of direct perception – we cannot directly “see” the pain of the child’s predicament.

In this way, empathy remains strongest for those closest to us. Our friends and family receive more empathy than our neighbours, or strangers in another city. In the absence of friendship or kinship it is easy to disregard someone as “not one of our own”, in not belonging to our class, social group, race, religion, ideology and so on. We create a personal distinction between ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, in which we feel empathy and a common mutuality when we say ‘us’, and indifference, if not outright hostility, when we say ‘them’. If we belong to a sporting team, we feel empathy and concern if a player on our team gets injured right before the Grand Final. By contrast, we feel joy if a player on the other team gets injured. Our empathy is diminished for this “rival” group, and enhanced for our own.

 

A similar point is that of association. Sports fans tend to diminish association with their team after a loss, and increase association after a win.[iii] After a team wins, a fan is more likely to wear the team’s sport colours.[iv] When their team wins they tend to claim: “We won last weekend!” But if their team loses, they tend to distance themselves from the loss and say: “They played terribly last weekend!” This process of disassociation makes the team’s loss less personal and less egregious and diminishes personal investment/empathy. This process of “othering” forms the basis behind “us” vs. “them” paradigms that undermine empathy for opposing/competing groups.[vi]

“Othering” in research on racism is said to form the catalyst for racist comments.[vii] Instead of seeing another race as part of the collective “we” (humans), we view them as a distinctly separate “they” (another race).[viii]

 

A recent study of High Schoolers:

Identified an underlying racism among white Anglo-Saxon Australians that emerged in their language, for example, the use of the word ‘them‘ to describe students from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds as opposed to the use of the word ‘us‘ when describing themselves.” (Emphasis added)[ix]

This process of “othering” can result in overly simplistic tags assigned to groups other than our own. In the study above, some students categorized all people from “China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries as ‘Asians’”, disregarding which country the students actually came from, or the possibility that the students were born in Australia. The reverse trend was also true:

“Some participants from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds described students with lighter coloured skin as Aussie‘ or ‘White‘, as if they too were a homogenous group [even though some of those described were Middle Eastern, or not of Anglo-Saxon descent]”.[x]

 The above categorical distinctions are errors of logic that reveal the simplicity of ascribing a category to an entire body of people. Simplistic designations of physical characteristics along with the “othering” process form the basis behind racism. It is okay, some argue, to ascribe a tag or label to an entire body of people, disregarding individual variance. It is okay, some argue, to treat people differently if they belong to one of these “other” groups.

This is how empathy is built:

  • Empathy is built by breaking down barriers between people.
  • Categorisation builds new barriers by exaggerating the differences between us, “othering” groups from one another and thereby creating “us” vs “them” paradigms.
  • Therefore, we will only increase empathy if we stop categorizing each other, and stop treating other groups differently.

As the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins argues: “If we are to build a non-religious morality… we need to… expand the circle of those to whom we feel empathy [and] break down the barriers that divide us; the tribalism of religion, class, race and ideology.”[xii]

It is the extenuation of class, race and ideological warfare that is currently dividing people in our society and in the process destroying the empathy that these “opposing” groups may have for one another.

By contrast, if an “opposing” group is viewed as part of the collective (society as a whole, as a single entity) then empathy is much more readily available. It is almost impossible to empathise if we say “they are suffering”, but much more possible if we say “we are suffering”. We can use language to reframe the discussion and include groups exterior to our own as part of our “category” in society.

 

 This is an extract from my book: Us vs Them: A Case For Social Empathy”.

Buy it now on Kindle.

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Bibliography:

[i] C. Daniel Batson and Nadia Y. Ahmed, ‘Using Empathy to Improve Intergroup Attitudes and Relations’, Social Issues and Policy Review (2009) 3(1): 141-177.

[ii] Peter Singer, ‘The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle’, New Internationalist (April, 1997).

[iii] Robert Cialdini, ‘Basking in Reflected Glory: 3 (Football) Field Studies’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(3), 366-375;

Filip Boen, Norbert Vanbeselaere & Jos Feys, ‘Behavioral Consequences of Fluctuating Group Success: An Internet Study of Soccer-Team Fans’, The Journal of Social Psychology (2002), 142(6);

Aharon Bizman, Yoel Yinon, ‘Engaging in Distancing Tactics Among Sport Fans: Effects on Self-Esteem and Emotional Responses’, The Journal of Social Psychology (2002), 142(3);

D.L. Wann, N. Branscome, ‘Die-Hard and Fair-weather Fans: Effects of Identification on BIRGing and tendencies’, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, (1990) 14, 103-117;

C. R. Snyder, M. A. Lassegard, C.E. Ford, ‘Distancing after Group Success and Failure: Basking in Reflected Glory and Reflected Failure’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1986) 51, 382-388;

Edward Downs, S. Shyam Sundar, ‘“We won” vs. “They lost”: Exploring ego-enhancement and self-preservation tendancies in the context of video game play’, Entertainment Computing (2011) 2(1), 23-28.

[iv] Filip Boen, Norbert Vanbeselaere & Jos Feys, ‘Behavioral Consequences of Fluctuating Group Success: An Internet Study of Soccer-Team Fans’, The Journal of Social Psychology (2002), 142(6);

Aharon Bizman, Yoel Yinon, ‘Engaging in Distancing Tactics Among Sport Fans: Effects on Self-Esteem and Emotional Responses’, The Journal of Social Psychology (2002), 142(3);

D.L. Wann, N. Branscome, ‘Die-Hard and Fair-weather Fans: Effects of Identification on BIRGing and tendencies’, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, (1990) 14, 103-117;

C. R. Snyder, M. A. Lassegard, C.E. Ford, ‘Distancing after Group Success and Failure: Basking in Reflected Glory and Reflected Failure’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1986) 51, 382-388.

[v] Ibid; Edward Downs, S. Shyam Sundar, ‘“We won” vs. “They lost”: Exploring ego-enhancement and self-preservation tendancies in the context of video game play’, Entertainment Computing (2011) 2(1), 23-28;

Eddie O’Conor, ‘Fan Psychology During a Losing Season’, Performance Excellence Center: Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.

[vi]Perdue C.W, Dovidio J.F, Gurtman M.B, Tyler R.B ‘Us and Them: Social Categorization and the Process of Intergroup Bias’, J. Pers. Social Psychology (1990), 59:475-486.

[vii]The Impact of Racism upon the Health and Wellbeing of Young Australians, Foundation for Young Australians, Deakin University (2009).

[viii]Ibid.

[ix]Ibid.

[x]Ibid.

[xi] Richard Dawkins, Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life, Episode 3, BBC (2012).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] C. Daniel Batson, The Altruism Question: Towards a Psychological Answer (Psychology Press, 1991);

J. Decety & C. Daniel Batson, The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (MIT Press, 2009); D.L. Krebs, ‘Empathy and altruism’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1975), 32, 1134-1146;

D.L. Krebs and F. Van Hesteren, ‘The development of altruism: Towards an integrative model’, Developmental Review, 14, 103-158;

M.L. Hoffman, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2000);

A.R. Damasio, The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness (Harcourt Inc. 1999);

Karsten Stueber, “Empathy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/empathy/&gt;.

[xiv] M.L. Hoffman, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[xv] D.L. Krebs, ‘Empathy and altruism’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1975), 32, 1134-1146; D.L. Krebs and F. Van Hesteren, ‘The development of altruism: Towards an integrative model’, Developmental Review, 14, 103-158.

[xvi] R. B. Cialdini et. al, ‘Reinterpreting the empathy-altruism relationship: When one into one equals oneness’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 752-766.

[xvii] Ibid.

 

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